Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Fear Is NOT Real

Every so often there is a show that you feel you have to see just because of the people involved. You want it to be good of course, and you believe it could be good, but that's entirely because of the people involved – the people that are the reason you feel you have to see the show. 13 – Fear Is Real was one of those shows for me. The people in this case are Executive Producers Sam Raimi and Rob Tappert. You remember Raimi and Tappert right? If the only things they gave us were Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess that would be enough. But of course that aren't the only things they've given us. Raimi gave us the Evil Dead movies, the Grudge movies, and of course the Spiderman series (not to mention having Bruce Campbell as a friend since childhood). Rob Tappert has worked with Raimi since they were college roommates and has either co-written or co-directed most of the movies that Raimi has made (not to mention that he's married to Lucy Lawless). If there's one thing these two guys know it's horror movies. So yeah, I was looking forward to seeing what they'd do with a horror based reality show. So how'd they do?

Well I have to say that I was a bit disappointed, but before I get into reasons I should present a bit of a synopsis of the show. It began with a group of people being driven out into the wilderness in a converted school bus. Brief glimpses of the outside, mainly of graveyards, set the scene as New Orleans and the Louisiana bayous. As they drive along we meet some of the cast including Leah, a bartender who is afraid of just about everything but particularly the dark; Lauren, a model who claims that in the movies it's always the ditzy girl who gets killed first; Kelly, an events planner who talks about being a Christian and claims that she believes in the Devil and in his works; and Cody, a self proclaimed "ghost hunter" with multiple piercings and a huge Mohawk who claims not to be afraid of anything. As the bus penetrates deeper and deeper down a dirt road it becomes darker and darker. Suddenly the bus stops, its path blocked by some logs. The driver tells his passengers that this is where they get off. They keep walking down the road, apparently because they aren't allowed to stay with the bus. So they trek further down the road in the dark with all the weird foresty noises, which always sound scary at night, and finally find a deserted shack. And suddenly we're in every scary teen flick of the '80s and '90s, except that the shack is loaded with closed circuit cameras all feeding to "The Mastermind."

Despite several people in the groups saying "don't open the door," they open the door. The one room shack, which is to say without a toilet (big surprise), is "tastefully" decorated in blood spatters, voodoo doll, a pentagrams and the words "Don't Trust" both in blood, and if I recall correctly a ram's skull. As the group starts to settle in they hear a thump on one of the walls. It's an axe with a note holding a note onto the wall. The note says "Answer the phone." And of course, despite people saying "don't answer the phone" they end up answering the phone. Or at least they do after they find it, since it was hidden under the floorboards of the shack. On the phone is The Mastermind and he has instructions for them. First, one of them has to agree to stay at the cabin and therefore not participate in the "game" that The Mastermind has for them. Surprisingly it is great big fearless ghost hunter Cody, his mohawk looking more than a little deflated by the Louisiana humidity, who decides to stay put. The remaining twelve people pair up into twos. One member of each pair then has to walk down the road to ... an uncertain fate. Next the other six are told to walk down the same road. What we know (and they don't) is that their partners have been blindfolded, gagged and tied to chairs in the woods. As the others walk down the road they come to what they, and initially we since we're in on at least this much of what The Mastermind plans, think is one of their number bound to a chair. It is in fact a dummy. There are more instructions from The Mastermind. They have to search through the woods to find and release only their own partner. Once they do that they have to get back to the dummy as fast as they can. The last pair to get back to the dummy have to face the Execution Ceremony. They also have to take video cameras with them to film their rescue, leading to some very "Blair Witch-y" footage of them stumbling through the woods. Eventually, it is the only all female pair, Kelly and Lauren who have to face the execution challenge. During the night Leah, the one who is basically afraid of everything leaves the cabin – presumably to use or at least find the outhouse – and somehow panics. She screams (of course) and the others (of course) go out to find and comfort her. Nothing really comes of it but everyone associated with this production has to be overjoyed that they cast this scaredy cat for the show since she gets frightened even when there's nothing to be frightened about.

The next morning everything seems nice and normal with all the scares of the night before gone. Then Nassir, a concierge who claims to be a rapper, discovers a tape recorder sitting on top of a cage inside of which is locked a wooden box. The tape tells him to gather up the group before going any further, which he dutifully does. The box locked in the cage is the "Death Box." A player who has the Death Box and reads the instructions inside can kill three of his fellow competitors, but if they are caught with the box they are automatically put up for execution. Steffinnie, a young woman of Laotian descent who says she believes in spirits because she's seen spirit activity in her own life, quickly works out the combination for the lock (which oddly isn't 666 – that's the first number she tries) takes the box out but doesn't open it and hides it in the underbrush. When the others discover that the Death Box is out of its cage there is considerable discussion of who could have it and how it was probably a premature action. There's a lot of paranoia floating about and Steffinnie cracks. She goes back, and with some difficulty finds the box and puts it back in the cage. Crisis, seemingly, averted.

Night falls again and the phone rings. Kelly and Lauren are told to each use a video camera to record their last words to the group (and to us of course) and then walk down the road where The Mastermind's minions – yes he actually calls them minions and has done from the first time he spoke to the victims/contestants – will take charge of them. The minions are dressed all in black and along the road they grab Kelly and Lauren and blindfold them. They also apparently blindfold the camera because for the next minute or so all we see is a sliver of light on a mostly black screen. Finally we all arrive at the site of the execution challenge. There are two slightly larger than people sized wooden boxes; Kelly and Lauren are to be buried alive! They get into their crude wooden coffins, which are of course wire for sound and have closed circuit TV cameras, and the minions begin securing the coffins with nails and wire, lower them into the waiting graves and then shovel on the dirt. While Kelly prays, Lauren fidgets because of the dirt dropping down onto her. Once the burying is finished The Mastermind tells the girls (remember the coffins are wired for sound) that the first one to escape from her coffin will survive and return to the group. The other one will die. Truth be known the result is relatively anticlimactic. It doesn't take too long for Kelly to figure out that she can kick out the end of her coffin with her feet and then she can – amazingly – get out through that end. She's out of the box before Kelly even finishes pushing on the tops and sides. Kelly goes back to the group with Laurens video and I swear someone says "don't watch the video." And on most shows that would be the end but not on this one; the next day dawns and the group goes out to check the cage. The Death Box is gone!!

I have from time to time said that if a reality show is going to be imitative it should have some original aspect to it that will differentiate from the run of the mill. Why is it that after a seemingly endless string of Apprentice imitators came and went only Hell's Kitchen survived and prospered. The answer is that the Gordon Ramsay show had differences – Ramsay's perpetual presence as a hands on leader being the biggest – that made it seem different, or at least different enough, from the original model that it started from that people either overlook or don't care about the similarities. 13 – Fear Is Real is taking from the Survivor model – not surprising since the third executive producers is Jay Bienstock who has been with Mark Burnett's show since Australia – but in a very real way, rather than improving on the model the show is so pale an imitation that it might be called corpse-like. On Survivor there always seems to be something going on, whether it's gathering food or getting water or even lying in their shelters talking smack about other players and plotting alliances. In the wake of the first challenge where the victims have to find their partners the most exciting thing to occur until the Death Box was found by Nassir was a stimulating game of throw the stick into the holes in the concrete blocks. And that made it sound more exciting than it was. Watching Cody's mohawk deflate would have been more fun, but by that afternoon it had almost converted itself into a flat-top.

There is a further major problem with this show and that concerns the subject matter. The classic horror movies of the '70s, '80s and '90s had a common thread of unpredictability. You never knew when something was going to happen and it built up the dramatic tension to considerable heights. And of course none of the people in those movies knew that they were in a horror movie; well except maybe for Neve Campbell and her friends in the Scream series. The net result is that they went to the secluded cabin in the woods with little more on their skeevy little minds but partying, drinking, and getting laid. In those movies then it comes as a shock to all around her that the girl who just had sex ended up as the victim of a hideous murder. The horror aspects of 13 Fear Is Real are stage managed, and worse they seem to be on a schedule. While they may not have known that the first "selection challenge" (or whatever you want to call it) would take place the night they arrived, they knew that the next night either Kelly or Lauren would be "killed" and so there wouldn't be another selection challenge and they could basically relax. That doesn't really inspire fear in well... just about anybody. You can't schedule terror. Plus they're all aware that they're on a reality show dealing with fear and terror, so in light of that awareness how much fear can be inspired within them. The victims might put on a show but it lacks the believability that you might have if, instead of knowing they're on a show called 13 – Fear Is Real, they believe they're on something called True Beauty (to use the name of the week's other new reality debut as an example) and the situation they find themselves in seems like a horrible U-turn from what things are supposed to be. But of course you couldn't do that without fear of lawsuits, now could you.

13 – Fear Is Real is a major disappointment given the quality of the people involved in the show. The fear on the part of the audience has very little to do with what is going on on-screen. We have little or no involvement with the victims and thus their demise and their interactions don't interest us. There is no surprise or shock here and that undermines our sense of fear. And when you take the horror away from a TV series based around horror movie clich├ęs, you aren't left with much at all. 13 – Fear Is Real gets good marks in terms of concept but the majority of the grade is based on execution (you should pardon the expression) and in that the show gets a big fat goose egg. It may not be the worst show of the year or even the month, but when it comes to everything else, it fails to live up to its potential, and it fails to scare us. In short it fails dismally as a show.

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